In comparison with other major European capitals, Paris is often accused of lacking in green space. London, Amsterdam and Bucharest all have oodles of parks in comparison with the French capital. But what Paris lacks in green space, it makes up for in terms of a rich history and an unparalleled number of hidden gems around the city, including old parks, and even older plants. And so I set off. Out to find it. In search of the oldest tree in Paris.
In search of the oldest tree in Paris: An adventure in the 5e arrondissement
I’d heard that the gnarled tree was located in a park somewhere between Notre Dame and the iconic Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop. Whispers of an ancient tree propped up with concrete columns, iron poles, and covered in ivy. And when I wandered into Square René Viviani-Montebello on a crisp winter’s day, the tree was clearly visible in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
Located to the back of the park, near Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre (one of the city’s oldest churches), the oldest tree in Paris has clearly seen better days (unfortunately). Legend says, as they often do, that if you touch the bark, your luck will magically improve. But with a large fence in front of the tree (I assume to protect the rough bark from would be graffiti artists), it’s impossible to reach the trunk, let alone touch it!
A history of the oldest tree in Paris
The acacia tree (Robinia pseudoacacia or ‘Locust tree’) was planted in 1601 (or 1602- depending who you ask), during the very beginnings of Early Modern France, and is located just steps away from the rows of cherry blossoms that surround Notre Dame come springtime. Somehow, with the exception of damage to the upper branches by a shell in WWI, the tree has survived the past four centuries largely unscathed.
Nearby, a metallic triangular sculpture by artist Georges Jeanclos sits proudly in the centre of Square René Viviani (French name Square René Viviani-Montebello) )and a little further down the road, you’ll find the pretty façade of Odette, Paris.
Odette, Paris café façade
Square René Viviani: A pretty Green space in the heart of Paris with a whole load of history!
The Square is situated to the South of Notre Dame and to the South of the Seine. Filled with flowers in the summer months, and the perfect place to stop by and enjoy a Parisian picnic, the park was designated a public space in 1928. However, the story of the park includes many other uses before it was transformed into a floral garden for everyone to enjoy.
Scattered pieces of carved stone invoke memories of the space’s use as a dumping ground when it was used as a waste site while Notre Dame was being renovated and transformed into a gothic masterpiece by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century (you may well remember him as the guy who transformed Mont Saint Michel and Carcassone in the South of France into must-see tourist destinations).
In even earlier times still, the site was used as dormitories for an ecclesiastical order that has since died out. And perhaps most surprisingly, this tranquil green area was used as a cemetery in the 6th-Century. During excavations near St-Julien-le-Pauvre in the 19th Century, Merovingian tombs were discovered lurking under the sweet smelling flowers…